Chapter 3: First-Century Apostasy
Although titled the Acts of the Apostles, the book of Acts essentially deals with events surrounding the ministry of one apostle: Paul. Paul was specially called to carry the gospel to the Gentiles (Romans 15:16). Most of the history in Acts deals with the episodes surrounding the Gentile churches Paul raised up. Geographically, the majority of the events take place north and northwest of Jerusalem. This geography included the territory conquered by the Roman Empire.
These facts are necessary to understand why Luke wrote this book. Acts was intended to expose a growing religious movement prophesied to threaten God’s Church. This religious system, begun by Simon Magus and calling itself Christian, was a remake of the ancient Babylonian mystery religion. This counterfeit movement eventually formed an ungodly political-religious alliance centered in Rome. Its ultimate goal was to snuff out God’s truth, stamp out His people, and become the only “Christian” church in the world!
No other false Christian church came close to the size and power of the one Simon Magus raised up.
Jesus Christ had warned the disciples, “Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also” (John 15:20). Jesus Christ’s words became all too true—immediately!
Persecution Furthers the Work
God used the persecution of His people for an important purpose. “Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only. And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord” (Acts 11:19-21). God used these scattered Christians to convert “a great number.” The disciples became more fervent. They knew they were being persecuted for obeying our God of love! This made them realize more deeply how evil this world is. Then they plunged more urgently into helping God’s Work. In this way, the persecution caused the gospel to be taken north and west into Europe.
This history holds an encouraging lesson for us today: God often furthers His Work in the face of persecution.
The disciples were driven out of the Jewish community. As a result, they began to preach the gospel to the world! Under the direction of the apostles, the Work and Church gradually moved to the outer reaches of the Roman Empire.
God commissioned Peter, the chief apostle, to oversee carrying the gospel to the 10 lost tribes of the house of Israel and the Jews. This commission took Peter north and west of Jerusalem, even to the British Isles. The other 11 apostles assisted Peter in taking the gospel to the 10 tribes (Matthew 10:5-6).
Secular history and tradition tell us that Andrew went to northern Asia Minor and worked in the area of the Black Sea and Crimea. John worked in the eastern Mediterranean region. John’s brother James stayed in Jerusalem and was martyred by Herod there (Acts 12:1-2). Philip worked in Scythia and in Gaul (France). Matthew also worked in Scythia and Ethiopia. Bartholomew went into Silesia, Armenia and around the Caspian Sea. Thomas went into the Iranian plateau and possibly as far as India. Thaddeus went into the upper Mesopotamian regions and Assyria. Matthias went into Macedonia, Dacia and central Europe. James Alphaeus went into Spain, Britain and Ireland. Simon the Zealot went into North Africa and Britain.
Paul had a special calling, separate from the other 12 apostles. Paul’s primary commission was to carry the gospel to the Gentiles. Jesus Christ told him directly he could not work in Jerusalem (Acts 22:18-21). In many ways, this was a very practical decision. Paul could not be used effectively in Jerusalem or in Judah for two reasons. First, because he had done so much damage to the Church, it would have been difficult for the brethren to accept him. His conversion was initially received with mixed emotion. Could the man committed to destroying God’s fledgling Church become one of its trusted leaders? Second, his conversion thoroughly incensed the high priest and Jewish council; it made a mockery out of them and their plans to stop God’s Work.
Christ also told Paul that he would be brought before kings and would also carry the gospel to the children of Israel (Acts 9:15). When He spoke concerning Israel, Christ did not mean just the Jews. The lost 10 tribes by this time had been scattered north and northwest of Jerusalem. (For proof, request our free book The United States and Britain in Prophecy.) In other words, most of Paul’s work to the Gentiles and the children of Israel would take him to the outer reaches of the Roman Empire (inset: “The First-Century Apostles’ Work in the British Isles,” page 52).
The book of Acts and Paul’s letters provide a great deal of history concerning the early Church. Because the book of Acts focuses on Paul’s ministry, we know more about him than about the other apostles.
Gospel to the Gentiles
What Christ accomplished through Paul is astounding. Even the early Church was amazed. “Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them” (Acts 15:12). Paul and those who worked with him fulfilled some of the most amazing prophecies in the Bible concerning the Gentiles. A great light was brought to the Gentiles through them (see Isaiah 11:10). Through Paul, Christ established churches throughout the Gentile world.
Paul shows that the Church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:20-21). The work of the apostles and other leading ministers spread the gospel to the known world at that time. Paul attests to this fact. He wrote to the Colossians, “[B]e not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister” (Colossians 1:23). The work of the apostles did bear considerable fruit. Churches of God were established throughout the known world. The book of Acts shows us the geographic locations for many of the churches Paul established.
Yet as positive as these developments were, the growth of the first-century Church stopped within 30 years of its beginning.
Repent—Do the First Works
This is incredible history! The first-century Church could not have had a better beginning. Jesus Christ and the men who knew Him personally provided the Church with everything it needed in order to flourish. But the Church developed a fatal flaw.
We read about this flaw in Christ’s message to the Church in Revelation 2:1-5: “Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.”
The biggest problem in this era was that the people of God had lost their first love. That is a common problem among God’s people even to this day. It applies to every one of us. Long-time members must ask themselves: Do I really still have that first love—and more—for God’s truth, the living Word of God? Am I still in that first-love spirit, yearning for more and more of God’s truth and God’s understanding, hungering for righteousness? The people in the Ephesus era lost that. They began to think, Yeah, I’ve heard that before. I already get that. But they didn’t really get it at all.
Remember, this is a message for all eras of the Church. We all can lose our first love. If we are not careful, we will lose it! In this end time, 95 percent of God’s people—and 99 percent of the ministers—definitely lost that first love! What a searing message! What a colossal warning! How important it is that we keep our first love! It is extremely critical that God’s true ministers provide a strong example to the people of vibrant, zealous, godly love!
The Ephesus era began with great power. Fueling its power was the love of the truth. This love assisted the members in disproving false apostles and false leaders. However, the Ephesus era lost its first love. Soon, the Church fell prey to many false ministers.
While completing his commission, Paul had to work against intense persecution. He personally had to fight against angry Jews and the Roman government. And, what most people do not realize is that Paul also struggled against Simon’s growing counterfeit “Christian” movement.
Simon’s Evil Influence
Let’s pick up our story on Simon Magus. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Eusebius are the three main secular historians who recorded Simon Magus’s activities after Luke’s account in Acts 8. You can verify the following information in any good biblical or secular encyclopedia.
In a.d. 45, Simon Magus appeared in Rome. This was during the reign of Claudius Caesar. Peter’s rejection of him did not stop his efforts to gain influence within the new Jewish movement—first called Christian in Antioch (Acts 11:26). Between a.d. 33 and the time of his arrival in Rome, Simon used the name Christian for his own movement. First-century writers, however, still referred to his people as Simonians. Simon captured the name of Christ, and through the philosophy of syncretism he worked hard to blend religious concepts from the Old Testament and the new Christianity with the Babylonian mystery religion. Simon also developed a group of leaders and gained followers. One of his most famous leaders was a man named Menander, also a magician from Samaria.
Irenaeus stated that after Peter rejected him, Simon teamed up with a prostitute named Helen. Simon borrowed a “Christian” vocabulary. He taught that he was the Son of God to the Jews and Father to the Samaritans. He also taught that Helen was the mother of all things. Simon taught that he had created the angels.
During this same time period, Paul’s ministry was making strong inroads into Asia Minor and west through Europe. Churches had been formed at Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia, Colosse, Thessalonica, Philippi, Crete and even Rome, to name a few. This growth in the Church was happening without much notice from the Roman Empire, but Simon Magus was aware of it. Bitter that he could not be part of the true Church, he devised a plan to take control of these congregations.
When in Rome, Simon Magus won the awe and respect of Claudius, the Roman Senate and the people through his magic. He began to be worshiped as a god. Claudius honored him with a statue. He became known as “Simon Peter.” In the pagan religion of Rome, the name “peter” was used for certain gods and idolatrous objects of worship.
Simon Magus became a confusing counterfeit of the Apostle Simon Peter whom Christ put in charge of the Church He founded (Matthew 16:16-19; Mark 3:16). The Bible makes clear that Christ placed Peter in the office of highest authority within His Church. This is the form of governmental organization God uses. (You can prove this truth for yourself by ordering a free copy of our article “Was Peter the Chief Apostle?” or reading it online.) Satan used Simon Magus to set up a counterfeit version of that governmental structure within his false church.
Simon Magus is the so-called Simon Peter of the Catholic Church.
Among early Christian writers, Simon Magus became known as the “father of heresy.” He taught a licentious religion full of sexual promiscuity. His movement grew in numbers and popularity. Using his new influence gained at Rome, he wanted to infiltrate and gain power over the true Church of God.
Paul Exposes Another Gospel
In His Olivet prophecy (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21), Jesus Christ had given warning signs to His disciples. He had described events that would lead up to His dramatic Second Coming, including great troubles that would befall the world and God’s Church. In this prophecy, Christ had warned the disciples of the “deceit of men,” saying, “Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many” (Matthew 24:4-5).
This important end-time prophecy has come to pass in very recent times. However, there was also a fulfillment in the first-century Church of God. Simon Magus worked to infiltrate the Ephesus-era Church with people who came in the name of Christ yet spread terribly destructive deceits. Sadly, their work was all too successful.
During the last 10 to 20 years of Paul’s ministry, several severe doctrinal problems began to plague God’s Church. Heresies concerning “law and grace” and the gospel were being sown stealthily among God’s people. In Acts, Luke revealed that the one responsible for the heresy was Simon Magus.
In his writings, Paul also exposed Simon’s lies. He wrote the Romans, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Romans 6:1‑2).
One of the most destructive doctrines of deceit that Simon Magus and his followers introduced was that of a false gospel. They locked in on the person of Jesus Christ and appropriated His name—while ignoring what Christ taught. These false ministers began to plague the true Church, deceitfully sowing their heretical ideas. Because of their efforts, a controversy arose about the gospel. Church history shows that people came to violently disagree over whether the Church would proclaim a message about Jesus—or proclaim the very same gospel message Christ Himself proclaimed.
Paul gave us insight into the heresies spread through his church regions. He repeatedly warned God’s people against turning to another gospel—a gospel of men rather than the gospel of God.
About 20 years after the Church was founded, the Apostle Paul—inspired by Christ—wrote his epistle to the Galatians. Look what was happening in the Church. Paul wrote in Galatians 1:6: “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel.” Paul was writing to people who had been called into God’s Church and who had the Spirit of God—yet in just a short period of time, they had been turned from “the grace of Christ unto another gospel”!
Verse 7 shows that there were people—“some that trouble you”—who were working to “pervert the gospel of Christ.” False ministers were troubling the Church by perverting Christ’s gospel of the coming Kingdom of God, turning it into a message about Christ. This false gospel destroyed the knowledge that God is a Family—the good news, or gospel, of the coming Kingdom, or Family, of God. It destroyed the knowledge that God planned to bring all humanity into His Family through the faith of Jesus Christ.
What is a message about Christ compared to the very message of Christ?
The living God instructs His people to broadcast Christ’s gospel of the Kingdom of God to the world. The message focused on the person of Christ is a monstrous counterfeit.
Paul pronounced a double curse on these false ministers. “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed” (verses 8-9). Paul was an expert warrior when it came to men preaching false doctrine. He dealt in reality. He told the brethren that any man who preaches lies in the name of God is accursed. To pervert the true gospel is worthy of a double curse.
Paul exhorted the brethren to stand up and fight for the truth. He wanted them to follow his example. Why did Paul fight so hard to preserve the gospel? Because he knew it came by revelation from Almighty God! (verses 10-12). Paul also knew that this gospel must be proclaimed to the world by God’s very elect.
Gospel means good news. It is the only good news this world has!
When Jesus Christ reveals truth, we must give our lives, even unto death, to preserve it. This is the same great lesson we must learn in this last era of God’s Church. Jesus Christ gave Mr. Armstrong incredible revelation. The true gospel was a large part of that revelation. Then many ministers even in the true Church came preaching another gospel and another Jesus. We should not be fooled by names or familiar faces. If any man comes preaching another Jesus or a different gospel, we should flee from that person. We must fight to preserve what Jesus Christ has given us!
At the same time, any minister who preaches a false gospel must be warned. The Laodicean ministers must be given a grave warning! They are cursed men if they do not repent of teaching false doctrine (Malachi 2:1-4).
The Apostle Paul foretold this great first-century apostasy. He labored intensively against these false ministers. Still, over time, confusion arose about which ministers were true ministers. Even Paul was put on the defensive.
A counterfeit ministry was gaining a stronghold within God’s Church. Even worse, some of God’s true ministers were beginning to join forces with it!
Paul wrote the Colossians, “For I would that ye knew what great conflict I have for you, and for them at Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh …. Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Colossians 2:1, 8). God’s own ministers were “spoiling” the brethren through deceit. (Request our free booklet Colossians for more information on this subject.) Paul also wrote them, “And say to Archippus, Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfil it” (Colossians 4:17).
At a ministerial conference in Ephesus, Paul warned the Ephesian ministers, “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears” (Acts 20:29-31).
Paul knew, through revelation, that much of the work of the apostles was to be undone even though he worked night and day to prevent it.
We must never forget that God’s very elect are always in a raging war with the devil!
Warnings From Other Apostles
Paul was not the only apostle battling these Church-destroying problems. The Apostle Peter also warned the churches, “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not” (2 Peter 2:1-3).
Two of Christ’s leading apostles spoke dire prophecies. The Church was to suffer the crippling attack of false ministers spreading heresy. Yet the most incredible aspect of these revelations was that these false ministers were going to come from within the Church!
Herbert W. Armstrong showed how these problems in the Church at that time were largely Simon Magus’s doing. Mr. Armstrong proved that Simon Magus was at work in the Corinthian church, and showed how Paul’s and Peter’s writings—as well as those of Jude and, as we will see in detail, John—reveal that all these apostles had to battle this man’s work and influence.
In a letter to the ministry dated February 22, 1974, Mr. Armstrong talked about the different biblical books where you can obviously see Simon Magus and his followers: 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 2 Peter, John’s epistles and Jude.
There was a pattern: It was the same group of people causing all the problems. This powerful Simon Magus kept right on coming, and the rebels kept growing and multiplying and continually causing problems in God’s Church.
A lot of people have been confused, thinking there were several different religious or “Christian” groups causing those problems, when in reality it was primarily that old Babylonian mystery religion trying to blot out God’s Church and take it over!
We need to understand this because it makes what God’s Church is dealing with today so much clearer.
Mr. Armstrong’s instruction in this history is really critical. When he got into subjects like this, he was almost always 100 percent right (of course, he wrote little about the Laodicean era, which came on the scene after his death). We must realize how God used Mr. Armstrong and keep ourselves grounded in what he taught! When you find the person through whom Christ restored all things (Matthew 17:10-11), you want to cling to that truth. If you look at the really critical subjects—and the record of what happened in the New Testament Church is definitely one of those—you’ll find that Mr. Armstrong covered them extremely well. We have that wonderful history to draw from, and God help us if we don’t use it!
But while Mr. Armstrong kept following through on making that point, many of the wcg ministers and people failed to do so.
Letter to the Corinthians
As Mr. Armstrong said, the book of 2 Corinthians also reveals Paul battling this satanic attack against the Church. The Corinthian Church was one of the first churches Paul had established; historians set the date around a.d. 50 as its beginning. His letters to this congregation, written around a.d. 55, reflect some serious problems within the Church.
Paul wrote, “But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost [or perishing]: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). Much of the Church was turning away from the true gospel. Paul revealed the real criminal behind the spreading of the false gospel. The “god of this world,” Satan the devil, was the one blinding people to the truth. He is the same culprit at work against God’s Church today.
This was a dark time in the history of God’s Church. As Edward Gibbon wrote, “The scanty and suspicious materials of ecclesiastical history seldom enable us to dispel the dark cloud that hangs over the first age of the Church” (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). Satan was doing everything he could to destroy the Work of God, and in little more than two decades, God’s people were turning to another gospel! That is an utterly condemning and frightening reality!
There was really only one group that wanted true Christianity. But those rebels hated the message that Christ proclaimed. They wanted the label of Christianity, and they wanted the name of Christ, and they were doing all they could to destroy the true Church.
In The Incredible Human Potential, Mr. Armstrong wrote about how Paul discussed this falling away. He quoted 2 Corinthians 11:2-4, which say, “For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he [here, Mr. Armstrong put in brackets, ‘a minister of Simon Magus’] that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit [Mr. Armstrong put in brackets, ‘of rebellion and disobedience’], which ye have not received, or another gospel ….”
Simon Magus’s followers were teaching about another Jesus, another gospel, another spirit. That is total destruction of what God gave them! How could that happen to so many of God’s people? How has it happened to so many of God’s people today?
The first-century history of God’s Church is a type of the last-century history. For example, many of God’s people became Laodicean, or lukewarm, in the first century, as they have in this last, or Laodicean, era of God’s Church. (You can prove that by studying our booklet Colossians. It is free upon request.)
I don’t think any of our writings in the past have emphasized the book of Corinthians enough in talking about Simon Magus—at least not the way Mr. Armstrong used it here. A little common sense would tell you that the same very powerful group was causing most of the problems for God’s people. But you will not find any real reference to that in Herman Hoeh’s booklet A True History of the True Church.
Why didn’t these men stay close to what Mr. Armstrong taught? Didn’t they realize that God was using him to guide us and give us thoughts right out of the Bible and the mind of Christ? Some of these ministers were more interested in exalting themselves than exalting God’s truth and God’s apostle. In too many cases, those men got off into their own reasoning and the reasoning of worldly scholars, as if that automatically carried a lot of weight. Worldly scholars can sometimes be helpful, but they can also lead you astray if you are not very careful.
This is a problem God’s ministers must really be aware of in our speaking and writing. If we are going to educate God’s people and give them a true picture of what has happened in the past and the present, we must really know what we are talking about and stand on solid ground. Where God has prepared the ground and the soil, we must follow through on that.
We are commissioned by God to expose the great false church. This Babylonian mystery religion has been used by the devil to pollute the whole world! (Revelation 17:15). It has frightening power over the kings of the Earth.
Transformed as Angels of Light
Paul continued by warning about “false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness …” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). Paul was dealing with this in the first century a.d. Most of the Corinthians turned away so quickly.
Should we marvel that people deceitfully transformed themselves into the apostles of Christ? It is the same old story God’s people have had to battle all along. You see it all the time. People try to creep into the Church simply to cause us problems. God’s ministers have to really know that those who seek to come into the Church are of the right spirit—and we can if we go to God on our knees and pray for direction! They come as angels of light. People can act like they really believe what we are saying, but maybe they don’t; maybe they are just lying. Satan comes as an angel of light—but he lies.
If we use God’s Holy Spirit, we will discern who these liars are! It is a battle to cling to what God has given us.
Paul knew Satan’s ministers were going to ravage the flock. However, he didn’t just let it happen. He challenged them and their doctrines. He put the word out that they were coming. He told the brethren they were going to have to be spiritually astute in order to discern who the false ministers were. On the surface these men would appear righteous, but inside they would be plundering wolves.
Every human being is subject to deceit. Paul realized that there was only so much he could do for the people of God. Each individual Church member must be responsible to protect himself from deceit.
Countdown to A.D. 70
This situation in God’s Church grew worse. Paul personally faced mounting opposition from the Jews, leaders in the empire, and Simon’s false ministers.
Tragically, whole groups of people began to reject Paul. Eventually, he was arrested in the temple and sent to Rome. There Paul continued to preach the gospel.
Even worse days lay ahead for God’s Church. Storm clouds were also building over Judah and Rome at this time. The years a.d. 60 through 70 proved to be volatile. Nero ascended to power in Rome at age 17. He was the fifth emperor. It is believed that his mother, Agrippina, poisoned Claudius so her son could rule the empire. When she complained about her son’s mistress, Nero killed Agrippina in turn.
Nero was an inhuman, insane egomaniac. In a.d. 64, Rome burned to the ground. For six days and nights, a great fire raced through the capital city. Thousands of terror-stricken Romans were left homeless. The fire reduced the most heavily populated areas of the city to rubble and ash.
Historical traditions say Nero watched this incredible sight from his balcony. Why was he so fascinated? Because he desired to rebuild the city to an even greater glory. A rebuilt, more glorious Rome would immortalize the name of Nero. The rumor that Nero had burned Rome spread through the shaken city. In fear of his life, Nero blamed the fire on the Christians. The Romans believed him. Christians were already mistrusted and despised because of their beliefs. To a Roman, Christians were different. They would not worship the old Roman gods. They refused to worship the emperor as divine, which was interpreted as treason. The Christian teaching of Jesus Christ returning as King of kings sounded like revolt. It was easy for Nero to plant the idea that the fire could be the beginning of a revolution. The mad emperor ordered the punishment of Christians for burning Rome.
A full-scale persecution began. Nero personally devised some horrible tortures and executions for the falsely accused Christians. Some Christians were crucified, some were torn apart by wild dogs in the Circus Maximus, and others were set ablaze for Nero’s garden parties. That is the way it is in this wicked world sometimes.
The persecution raged for years. Paul was executed during this period. In the early summer of a.d. 68, Nero beheaded Paul and buried his body on the Ostian Way in Rome.
Nero met his own tragic end that same year as well. The Gallic and Spanish legions and the Praetorian Guards rose against him. Nero fled the city. The Senate declared him a public enemy. Nero committed suicide on June 9, a.d. 68, just outside Rome.
God’s leading Church elders in Rome were also imprisoned and slaughtered. In the following years, most of the other apostles were also martyred. Tradition states that the Apostle Peter was crucified upside down in the same year as Paul. This began to create a huge void in the upper level of leadership of the Church. One by one, the original disciples who had witnessed Christ’s life were martyred.
Destruction of the Temple
The Jerusalem church could do very little to help the congregation at Rome. Jerusalem was in disarray. In a.d. 66, Jewish rebels defied the Roman government in Palestine. A general revolt erupted. In the spring of a.d. 69, the Roman general Titus swept from east of Jordan into Judea. Jerusalem was surrounded by armies. Heeding Christ’s warning (Luke 21:20-21), the Church fled northeast to the city of Pella. Located in the Gilead mountains east of the Jordan River, Pella was a safe haven for God’s little flock.
In a.d. 70, Titus conquered Jerusalem. His siege of the city, described in detail by Josephus and Eusebius, was barbaric. Many people died of starvation. Before the siege was over, cannibalism was rife among the inhabitants. Once inside the city, Titus oversaw the slaughter of many people. He burned the temple to the ground. Titus laid waste to the city. In all, some 600,000 people were butchered!
Historians date the epistle of Jude close to a.d. 70. He wrote the Church about the same danger that Paul and Peter had identified. “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints. For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness,” or lawlessness (Jude 3-4). Men who were not converted were creeping into the Church and causing serious problems.
The early Church had been infiltrated and virtually destroyed by these false ministers, men who did not know God the Father or Jesus Christ.
However, Christ had not forsaken His Church. The Apostle John, the last survivor of the original 12 apostles, was still alive. Through all that persecution, John kept right on working. He was well known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:7, 20).
These men had been trained by Jesus Himself. Christ had an important job for them. And He spent a lot of time with John in particular, night after night, preparing him for a very special work—a critical role in the Church at the end of the first century.
Sidebar: The First-Century Apostles’ Work in the British Isles
By Ryan Malone
In Matthew 10, Jesus commissioned His 12 apostles to go “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (verse 6). (Christ also called the lost tribes of Israel “lost sheep” in Matthew 15:24.)
These tribes of Israel were “lost”—the world had lost sight of them. But of course, the disciples had to know their location in order to fulfill this commission.
Christ forewarned these men that wherever they traveled, there would be many—even whole cities—who would not receive their words (Matthew 10:8-14) and would even persecute them (verse 23). Christ instructed them how to handle this trouble and commanded them not to be afraid.
Verses 40-42 also indicate that some people would support their work. Surely, given the apostles’ work within those cities of “lost” Israel, God would have called certain individuals there! Some of these apostles went into the British Isles. (You can read more about this in our free book The United States and Britain in Prophecy. Our free reprint “Where Did Christ’s Apostles Go?” gives more details and scriptures as proof.)
Some erroneously believe Peter was bishop of Rome. The New Testament conclusively proves otherwise—after all, he was sent to the “lost sheep” of Israel.
Early Greek historians agree that Peter spent a substantial amount of time in Britain. These historians also record that other notable men who brought the gospel to Britain included the Apostle Paul, Aristobulus (see Romans 16:10; this man was martyred and buried in Glastonbury), Simon the Zealot (who was crucified and buried there), and Joseph of Arimathea. Spanish writers show that after Stephen’s martyrdom, James Alphaeus came into Spain and then to Britain and Ireland. Irish historian James Ussher says the Church in Ireland was established soon after the death of Christ by disciples from the Asian churches.
Christ had commanded that the gospel be taken to “the uttermost part of the earth” and “unto the ends of the world” (Acts 1:8; Romans 10:18). At that time, Britain was the farthest western boundary of the Roman Empire.
The Ecclesiastical Annals of one Vatican cardinal describe a document of considerable antiquity in the Vatican archives: “The manuscript related that in the year a.d. 35, a group of Christians including Lazarus, Mary …, Martha, Joseph of Arimathea, and several others were cast adrift in a boat from the coast of the Holy Land by persecuting Jews. … The vessel drifted finally to Marseilles and they were saved. From Marseilles Joseph and his company passed into Britain, and after preaching the gospel there, died.”
One church building of special note exists in the small English town of Glastonbury. Seventeenth-century English antiquary Sir Henry Spelman wrote, “It is certain that Britain received the faith in the first age from the first sowers of the word. Of all the churches whose origin I have investigated in Britain, the church [building] of Glastonbury is the most ancient” (Concilia). Of this building, Fuller stated: “If credit be given to ancient authors, this church of Glastonbury is the senior church of the world.”
In 1921, a pillar was discovered that had been erected on the grounds. On it a brass tablet bore the inscription: “The first ground of God, the first ground of the saints in Britain, and the burial place of the saints.”
Early records indicate there was a college or school there during the first half of the second century a.d. This was a small-scale operation, as we would expect of God’s Work wherever it was.
Records exist of a scholar of that college named Elvanus Avalonius—“a disciple to those who were the disciples of the apostles” (Edward Stillingfleet, Antiquities of the British Churches). He is the only student of the church in Glastonbury of whom any record has survived. In a.d. 180, he wrote a document titled “Concerning the Origin of the British Church.” This was well over a century after the original apostles had begun working there, and he was trying to keep this knowledge alive.
Elvanus’s preaching of the gospel brought a strong reaction from the Druids, however. After he was gone, the early pure apostolic faith all but disappeared from the British Isles.
In The Ecclesiastical History of Britain (1708–1714), Jeremy Collier wrote: “[I]t is evident Christianity got footing in the apostolic age, but what progress was made upon infidels, in what parts the Church was settled, and under whom; what successes or discouragements; what revolutions happened in the ecclesiastical history of this island, from the apostles to King Lucius, is altogether uncertain.”
Though true Christianity attained some footing due to the original apostles’ evangelism, it soon died out. King Lucius, who ruled in the second century, is said to have blended Christianity with Druidism.
In The United States and Britain in Prophecy, under the subhead “Apostles to Britain?” Mr. Armstrong wrote, “Yes, the British Isles heard Christ’s gospel! But they accepted, instead, the idolatry of the Druids, pagan worship, and the counterfeit ‘Christianity’ of the Roman Babylonian mystery religion, and even spawned the devil’s religion of the evolutionary concept.”
Eventually, Britons rejected what the apostles brought, and the apostles’ work died out there. Ultimately Roman Catholicism took over.